Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Securing our Borders

I wrote:

"I'm willing to bet that many of our most fervent anti-immigration voices also drive really big vehicles. Funny how the two might be connected."

D. B. Kenner replied:

"I don't get this comment. Is it axiomatic that those who want secure borders, want to stem the tide border-related crime, want living wages for low-income jobs, and who care about decline of American sovereignty under Bush are hypocrites and drive gas-guzzling cars?

Everything you outline in this post is of concern to many of us who want secure borders. Here's what's connected: cheap oil and cheap labor; global trade and unprotected borders; declining wages and fat cat criminality; a corn-soaked food industry and a cheap labor-loaked economy."

Mr. Kenner is right to call me out on this: my aside was referring to some comments by Alan Greenspan, who was noting that declining production of the once giant Cantarell oil field in Mexico was going to decimate the Mexican economy and Mexican social services and drive more illegal immigrants to America to look for jobs. My aside - to link thoughtless American driving habits to the immigration problem - is actually far more complicated that I suggested, of course. Greenspan's comments intimated that unless oil prices rise even more substantively than they already have, the Mexican tax base will wither and the crush of people crossing the Rio Grande will only grow. So, it's probably a good thing that Americans - pro- and anti-illegal immigrant alike - drive lots of SUVs and continue to burn lots of fuel, since that will ensure that prices continue to rise and will help keep money flowing into the Mexican government coffers. Of course, the secondary benefit of that petroleum price increase is the undermining of the American economy, ensuring that fewer illegal immigrants will even want to come to America, so I guess that's a good thing, if stemming the tide of illegals is at the top of one's list.

My passing comment was really intended to highlight what are often unconscious behaviors by even critics of illegal immigration that support the widespread existence of illegal immigrants. We like cheap products, and thus "the Market" seeks cheap labor to produce those products as cheaply as possible. In many cases, we seek those cheap labor markets legally (often after making laws that legally formalize the practice, e.g. NAFTA, etc.), and we then enjoy large quantities of cheap products produced by overseas labor. However, not all cheap labor can be done overseas (though alot can, including dentistry!), so a cheap local labor market has developed to do various kinds of menial work that most Americans are not willing to do as cheaply as illegal immigrants are willing to do. So, we may not like illegal immigrants in themselves, but we like our cheaply produced agricultural products, our cheaply produced housing, our cheaply plucked chickens and cheaply slaughtered cattle, our cheap child care and cheap care for the elderly. As with many vices, a "black market" has developed to feed our moral weaknesses - in this case, our unwillingness to pay what things actually should cost. In this sense, the outsourcing of basic manufacturing overseas is driven by the same fundamental impulse as the blind eye that has largely been turned to illegal immigrants until fairly recently. The most basic form of this vice is the pursuit of the lowest price; more profoundly, it is the avoidance of forms of work or compensation for such work that would force us to pay the actual cost of things - either in hard work or deferred gratification. At the heart of this impulse is the gnostic effort to escape from "drudgery" identified by Wendell Berry and ably described by Jason Peters.

Opponents of illegal immigration demand that we secure our borders in order to ensure our "sovereignty," but will doing this meaningfully ensure our sovereignty in an age of outsourcing and "the service economy," of massive foreign ownership of US government debt and our reliance on "foreign oil" (a.k.a., oil)? Why do we not hear from illegal immigration opponents any arguments on behalf of paying higher prices for citizen-produced goods? Organic markets have sprung up to ensure that certain kinds of goods have been produced humanely (e.g., free range chickens or grass-fed cattle), and tend to be a mainstay in Blue State cities (e.g., Whole Foods, etc.). Couldn't some illegal immigration critic begin a supermarket that would sell "citizen-produced" products or housing tracts built only by citizen-contractors? How about a fast food chain with only citizen-produced ground beef and chicken nuggets? Would our consumers flood them, in spite of the higher prices? Would it force producers who use illegal immigrant labor to start doing employment I.D. checks? Think of what happened last time there was a "Buy American" effort. The dominance of Wal-Mart throughout Red State America (not to mention Blue State America) does not inspire confidence.

Sure, by all means let's secure our borders. Nevertheless, the argument that securing our southern border will ensure our "sovereignty" just rings a bit false in an era in which America demands "everyday low prices," and as a result is everyday more beholden to Saudi Arabian oil, Chinese plastic products and Far Eastern purchasers of our debt. Practicing the primary end of sovereignty - self-governance - would go a long way to securing our borders.


Black Sea said...

"Why do we not hear from immigration opponents any arguments on behalf of paying higher prices for citizen-produced goods?"

I wonder which "immigration opponents" you're thinking of. Over and over again, I've seen the argument made that illegal immigration both depresses wages at the lower end of the economic scale and makes more difficult enforcement of worker safety laws, requirements for overtime pay, and so forth. Many writers have made clear the relationship between illegal immigration and growing income inequality, an argument that contains within it the the implication that immigration enforcement will and should increase wages for labor performed by US citizens.

On another point, I'm a little uncomfortable when people casually conflate the terms "anti-illegal immigration" and "anti-immigration." Regulation of immigration through effective legal processes is no more "anti-immigration," per se, than are speed limits and driver's licenses an expression of "anti-driving" sentiments.

Patrick Deneen said...

You may be right - those voices haven't often risen above the froth. Still, it seems to me that the products being bought so far are cheaper than the talk, and people of all persuasions generally prefer to buy at low priced outlets whose product stream is essentially unknowable over more expensive local ones where the source of products are more likely to be known (if any such places even exist anymore). Maybe the demand to secure the borders is a cry for help - "stop me before I shop everyday low prices again!"

I inadvertently neglected to include the adjective "illegal" in the sentence you quoted, an oversight which I've corrected - you'll notice I scrupulously included it in every other instance. I did not mean to suggest that all critics of illegal immigration are anti-immigration, and I regret the omission of the adjective in that one instance.